NYT Mini for Saturday, December 12, 2015

Constructor: Joel Fagliano

Relative Difficulty: Alabama Shakes

Theme: Alabama Shakes - One three-part clue occupying 52% of the grid and crossing itself in two places asks for the name of an album by Alabama Shakes. Which is a band or something I guess???

Theme Answers:

  • SOUND [7A: With 5- and 1-Down, 2015 Album of the Year nominee by Alabama Shakes]
  • AND [5D: SEE 7-Across]
  • COLOR [1D: SEE 7-Across]

Word of the Day: OPIUM

Opium (poppy tears, lachryma papaveris) is the dried latex obtained from the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum).[4][5] Opium latex contains approximately 12% of the analgesic alkaloid morphine, which is processed chemically to produce heroin and other synthetic opioids for medicinal use and for the illegal drug trade. Recommended after exposure to sub-par crossword puzzles. (Wikipedia)

Worst. Ever. The bar that had been steadily rising over the last three days has plummeted well below surface level. I can't see how far down the bar is. You can't see how far down the bar is. The bar is missing. You would need a magical bar-seeking mechanism of some sort to figure out where the bar is.

Where to begin. Of course the theme is a total non-starter. Even if "Alabama Shakes" (I honestly do not know if it's a person or group, and I don't care enough to look it up) were a good idea around which to base a puzzle (hint: it/they isn't/aren't), this is maybe the biggest way to screw it up. Forget the fact that it's a big 'fuck you' you anybody who doesn't know Alabama Shakes; this specific piece of trivia is WAY too topical—the 2015 Grammy awards haven't even happened yet; they happen in 2016. So this is apparently in response to the announcement that this album was nominated. Which is just bonkers in its triviality. Even if it was a Grammy winner, nobody cares about the Grammys anymore (Sidenote: Why isn't it "Grammies"? Do the normal rules of English pluralization go out the window just because it's an invented word?). They're dumb awards that people, even musicians, pretty much famously agree aren't really worth bragging about anymore, if they ever were. Then, on top of the trivia being way too specific, the actual answer phrase is way too generalSOUND AND COLOR? That's a boring phrase if ever there was one. Two common nouns joined by an 'and'. That's this answer. I'm not even critiquing the album title itself, just the answer.

Ok, now let's critique the album title itself. This is a bad album title, and here's why: 'Color,' in the context of music theory and criticism, is already a specific thing (basically a synonym for timbre). So when you use that word in the title of a piece of music, it already evokes that definition. Essentially this album title reduces to "Sound and Sound Quality", except that would have been a better title because then it would have sounded intentionally redundant (and hence INTERESTING), instead of ignorant and stupid. The only way this album title works for me is if the artwork involves one of those paint color sample sets. That'd actually be pretty cool.

 Click to hear a good album

Click to hear a good album

Ok, back to the puzzle. The other thing that sucks about the theme is its sheer density. Yes, more than FIFTY-TWO PERCENT of this grid is occupied (and that feels like the right verb, this being an unwelcome sit-in) by this tripe. I'm sure there are interesting album titles you could do this with, but this is not one of them. The fact that it crosses itself TWICE is not impressive because the words and letters are so common. Moreover, the Big Problem with the puzzle manifests itself in the fact that the letters where the words cross are not totally inferable.

Consider this screenshot to the left of my partially completed grid. Now, of course the fact that PaPPy is supposed to be POPPA [4A: Father, informally] is a large part of the problem. But POPPA is a spelling I've literally never seen before. That word is spelled P-A-P-A. So it's no surprise that I'd put PaPPy there, which itself was a replacement for 'daddy' (another better answer). I guess there are too many informal words for 'father', huh? Anyway, the point is that even after I tried putting in POPPA—against my better judgement—I still couldn't see SOUND AND COLOR, because a) that album title doesn't make any sense and 2) plenty of other words or at least pronounceable stuff (which is good enough for a lot of artists) could go there. I actually stared at the grid in this state for about three or four minutes, having no idea what letters to put in those two spaces. I could see that yN_ was a problem, certainly. But even that was inconclusive; people put all kinds of weird shit in their album titles, so who knows? This is where maybe having worked at a record store for the better part of a decade tends to hurt you as a solver.

I'm not a huge fan of multipart clues in Minis to begin with because they necessitate a level of (let's call it 'strict', Antonin) scrutiny I feel is not conducive to the format. The amount of time it takes me to correctly interpret which locations in the grid go in which order is hugely significant when we're talking about a puzzle that should only take something like 30 seconds altogether, tops. Yesterday's two-part answer BIBLE BELT was a good exception. That's a great phrase that's colorful and totally in-the-language yet not often seen in crosswords. But this.... Three Ultra-Common words?? And for what? A crappy sounding album that's the subject of a mediocre piece of ultra-topical trivia?

 Yes, character actor Ken Jeong's picture comes up when you search for 'Joel Fagliano'. I do not know why this would be the case, though I am not complaining.

Yes, character actor Ken Jeong's picture comes up when you search for 'Joel Fagliano'. I do not know why this would be the case, though I am not complaining.

It's times like this when I I honestly feel like 'Joel Fagliano' is a pseudonym that's inhabited by two wildly disparate entities with radically divergent tastes and sensibilities. I submit today's travesty as compared with any of the last three days' (actually competent) puzzles as evidence for this theory.

By far the most problematic consequence of this puzzle's theme's total failure is the fact that so little of it (the puzzle) is left after you remove (abort) it (the theme). In fact, if you were to remove every answer that intersects with the theme, you would have exactly nothing left. I guess that makes sense when your grid is only 5X5.


  • COO [1A: Dove's Call] — Sure, that works. It's certainly the preeminent verb specifically  associated with doves. I can think of other uses for it.
  • ALIEN [6A: Citizenship seeker] — No problem. I like the word ALIEN. It's one of those rare, all-purpose words that's suitable for goofy sci-fi comic booky slash-fic as well as uber-dry international legalese.
  • RMS [8A: Apt. units] — I feel like the term 'apt. unit' is a kind of redundant way to insinuate 'apt.' rather than what you really mean to say, which is more along the lines of 'apt. subdivision'.
  • PAS [4D: Faux ___] — Normally I would be so excited to see a French phrase (even a partial as mundane as this one) that it would be mentioned in the first couple paragraphs, but today being the horror that it is, it's relegated to the bullet section.
  • OPIUM [2D: Drug at the center of Great Britain/China wars] — Well, at least we have one small contingent of the puzzle devoted to imparting some actually interesting piece of information.

Signed, Jonathan Gibson, reverse opiate of CrossWorld